Tonawanda's homegrown bookshelf

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Reprinted courtesy of: Tonawanda News

By: Ed Adamcykz

There is something strange, and comforting, about this. A community loses its beloved local library through funding cuts. Rather than mourn it, the community sets up its own library.

The tiny building neighboring Kenmore East High School on Brighton Road in the Town of Tonawanda is Brighton Place, a library and neighborhood resource center unaligned with the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, and in receipt, board vice president Jason Aranoff points out, of “no funds from the county.”

There has long been a library at this intersection, to serve a community whose population advanced exponentially in the 1950s and 1960s, but whose growth has lately tailed off. The current building was erected in 1956, part of the county library system, but closed, with two other libraries in the town, in 2005.

After some hand-wringing, local meetings and a few spaghetti-heavy fundraisers to at least keep the lights on, the grassroots effort to sustain the library became a non-profit organization, and Brighton Place opened for business in 2006.

It now has more than 1,000 members, who pay $5 to the town, the building’s owners, according to head librarian Donna White. Members who reside outside of Kenmore or the Town of Tonawanda pay more.

“Membership is growing. There are a lot of new families here, taking advantage of children’s programming and books. It’s a whole new demographic, a library within walking distance (of homes), and people really utilize it. People really like this library; it has fewer rules,” White said.

While membership includes longtime residents who were a part of the suburban population explosion, newcomers from India, South Africa, Somalia and Asia are involved as well, White noted.

Inside, the place looks like a library. Books, DVDs, magazines and computers are at the ready. Cold drinks are available. It’s a little slow in the summer, but the community room hosts arts events and a regular assortment of presentations and concerts.

Brighton Place has a “more personable” aspect “patrons say they appreciate,” White said. “We can tailor our programs and our services to our patrons.”

The closing of the library in 2005 had a devastating effect, but the homegrown solution has some deep origins. The concept of the “subscription library” in America goes back to one founded by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1731. Free public libraries, supported by government, are a product of the 19th century.

“The county (the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, a county agency) closed three libraries, all north of Sheridan Drive, in 2005,” Aranoff said. “A petition of about 3,000 names was organized, but the county had determined there was no turning back.”

So, the Town of Tonawanda developed its own. One building, a steady stream of donations and plenty of action.

Instead of an empty building and a lot of rueful memories, the town has a thriving, busy and autonomous focal point, organized with similarities to the town’s Senior Citizen Center on Ensminger Road, all for $5.

Shakespeare lives here. So do Oprah, Led Zeppelin and people with advice on writing resumes. There is a knitting club, and computer instruction. Any day is just a few days away from a lecture, a class or a party. Since the overwhelming majority of patrons are from the neighborhood, there is also a social characteristic to this place.

That it was born from desperation, and a certain amount of defiance nearly 10 years ago, has become beside the point. The way a neighborhood café beats a chain restaurant in some, but not all, ways, Brighton Place has become something of a clubhouse for the residents of the spread-out Town of Tonawanda.